Spanish speakers across the Caribbean exclaim “¡Qué vaina!” when describing ‌an annoyance, a situation or a predicament. But the saying is especially versatile in Venezuelan slang, where it can be used to refer to anything from objects to people — the possibilities are endless. Increasingly, you hear that idiosyncrasy in Ciudad Juárez, ‌Mexico; in Texas and Florida; and even in shelters and schools in New York City as Venezuelan asylum seekers settle in the United States.

Castellano, or Castilian, emerged from Latin in Castile, Spain, during the 12th century. Later, Spanish colonizers brought it to the Americas, where it became known as Español, reaching confines as remote as the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea. Along the way, it overpowered numerous Indigenous tongues. Today the Spanish language is the fourth-most-spoken language in the world, and it is the most common language spoken in the United States after English.

Venezuelans are but the latest wave of migrants to invigorate American Spanish. Beginning in the late 1800s, waves of Spanish-speaking migrants have come from places like Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Then there are the Mexican populations that lived here long before the United States claimed their land and residents of Puerto Rico who moved to the mainland after the island’s annexation.

Each wave infused American Spanish with local flavor. That’s partly because the language spoken in each country has unique characteristics, at the national and the regional level. In Argentina, for instance, people use “vos” instead of “tu” for the second person, and there is an abundance of shushing sounds.


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